Our era’s big ideological struggle, some would have us believe, is between “globalists” and “nationalists,” which pits elites intent on dissolving national borders against a patriotic class intent on fortifying them. It is a romantic notion, one that gives the present a veneer of importance similar to the Cold War struggle between communism and capitalism. But it’s also wrong.
After all, such a conflict has already been decided. Nothing in history has succeeded like the nation-state. There were a few dozen independent states in the world in 1900. Today, there are nearly two hundred. At the same time, half-baked schemes for post-national governance, such as global communism or an ISIS-led caliphate, are either already in the dustbin of history or headed there. The so-called “globalist” organizations of today simply aren’t. Most acknowledge upfront that the nation-state remains the core unit of governance. The clue is in the name: the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and so on.
Instead, for much of the world the main issue is between nationalisms -- that is, the nationalism of existing states and the emerging nationalism of ethnic or cultural groups which want their own separate and smaller states.
Take Russia. Vladimir Putin’s third term as president has seen the rise of a strident nationalism mixing criticism of the West, invocations of Russian history, and appeals to Orthodox Church values. Putin’s goal is to quell internal dissent, and while the effort has been pretty effective overall, it hasn't entirely succeeded. The massive recent protests in Chechnya about the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar, for example, were as much about raising a Chechen identity at odds with the government in Moscow as they were about solidarity with Muslims half a world away. It is not difficult to imagine this community building on its protests to revive calls for greater autonomy.
In Europe, Hungary and Poland have seen a rise in nationalism that chafes against both real and exaggerated impositions by the European Union. At the same time, subnational groups have renewed calls for separation. Catalans in Spain will vote in a referendum on independence in October. The Scots and Northern Irish may decide to leave the United Kingdom as a result of Brexit. Ethnic and cultural enclaves in central and eastern Europe are itching for separation as well, with would-be leaders sidling up to regional powers such as Russia for support.
In the Middle East, the wars of the last few decades have caused what one scholar calls a “Great Sorting Out.” Similar to Europe in the wake of WWII, minority groups have left or been forced out, often violently, with the survivors seeking refuge elsewhere among more of their number. The region then divides into more ethnically and culturally distinct zones, some within existing states, others new. Christians, for example, have largely left Iraq, while Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis have pooled into their own defined areas, which then seek greater autonomy. On September 25, the Kurds are voting on an independence referendum in defiance of the government in Baghdad.
Today, then, the pertinent question is not whether national borders will dissolve. They won’t. Rather, will borders continue to multiply, resulting in 225, 250 or even 300 states in the future?
Below are links to a few recent articles touching on nationalism, as well as on other important issues, which should also get you thinking about where the world is headed.
Stefan Wagstyl/Financial Times
None of the words used to describe recent elections around the world seem apt for Germany. The run-up to Germany’s federal election on September 24 has been staid, bland, and predictable. Angela Merkel, who has been chancellor since 2005, looks set to claim a fourth term. The causes of political turnover in other nations, be it a well-established opposition party or new organizations on the politics fringes, have been little more than flashes in the pan in Germany. The Social Democrats’ candidate Martin Shultz, who had closed the gap in polling with Merkel earlier in the year, has seen a sharp fall in support since April. The AfD, a new party on the far right, lacks widespread appeal. This excellent report by Stefan Wagstyl in the Financial Times details these and more of the causes of this oddly calm election.
“Wouldn't it be a great thing if we could get along with Russia,” Donald Trump said while campaigning for president. Many assumed from those words that a Trump administration would quickly seek rapprochement with Vladimir Putin after relations had soured during the Obama administration over Ukraine and Syria. Yet so far, there have not been any large-scale changes in policy toward Moscow. The Kremlin, reports John Hudson in this smart essay for BuzzFeed, clearly had other expectations. Hudson reports on a newly discovered roadmap by the Russian government for the near immediate restoration of ties between Washington and Moscow. The plan included ambitious timelines, consultations, and agendas, most of which have failed to materialize -- to the credit of the Trump administration.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom/Financial Times
In the Financial Times, Jeffrey Wasserstrom begins a review of Richard McGregor’s new book Asia’s Reckoning with a curious fact. After a recent weapons tests by North Korea, the first person the US president called was not the South Korean president or the Chinese president, but rather the prime minister of Japan. The alliance between Japan and the United States has been such a stable fixture throughout the Cold War and post-Cold War periods that commentators might take it for granted. McGregor’s book, Wasserstrom writes, benefits enormously for focusing on Tokyo’s central and strong role in a range of regional issues.
Barbara Surk/The New York Times
President Xi Jinping’s signature project has been his ambitions “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a massive investment that seeks to yoke the Chinese industrial coast to Europe across the largest landmass in the world. It would seem unusual, then, for Xi to put a small industrial town in Serbia at its center. Yet this is a canny move by the Chinese leader, writes Barbara Surk in the New York Times. The foothold in Europe via Serbia establishes China as a counterweight on the continent to further EU expansion and integration.
John Pomfret/The Washington Post
“More than any other major continental power, China’s foreign policy serves its domestic policy,” writes John Pomfret, a former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing. “And China’s domestic policy. . . is laser focused on strengthening the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.” The continuation of the ruling Communist Party, Pomfret says, is the key to understanding why Beijing has supported Pyongyang throughout its recent provocations against neighbors and the United States. Anything that would weaken the party, such as a united, US-allied Korea on its doorstep, is a nonstarter for China.
Carl Bildt/The Washington Post
Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped up to the lectern for a press conference on September 5 in Xiamen, China, and proceeded to confuse the world. He called for a UN peacekeeping mission in Ukraine’s Donbass region, an area in which Russian forces remain active. The proposal is something of a rouse, explains Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden. By proposing peacekeepers on the line of conflict within Ukraine, the border between Russia and Ukraine further east is left unattended. It won’t happen, at least as Putin intends it. Yet Putin’s proposal does reveal a shift in his thinking, Bildt writes, perhaps driven by renewed US consideration of arming Ukrainian forces.
Jacob Heilbrunn/Politico Magazine
“During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump appeared to embrace glimmerings of realism 101,” writes Jacob Heilbrunn in Politico Magazine. Yet since then, the administration has produced more heat than light to guide a return to realist foreign policy in the United States. The failure, he argues, is due both to cabinet infighting and to a lack of a consistent vision at the top. “So, yes, it’s important to study realist precepts to understand the outlines of the Trump presidency,” Heilbrunn concludes. “But the more you dig into it, the more you understand that Trump has no grand philosophy at all. . .”
Stephen Castle/The New York Times
For any Britons who voted for Brexit in the hope of squaring off with the European Union to wrest back control and authority, it must come as a surprise that the strongest standoff is playing out not in Brussels, but at home in London. This smart reporting by Stephen Castle in the New York Times lays out just a few of the most prominent conflicts between and within political parties in the United Kingdom over Brexit. One takeaway is applicable to all nations: big, bold changes involving many stakeholders are always more difficult than they first seem.
Jane Perlez/The New York Times
Anyone looking for a single, simple reason why Beijing continues to support Pyongyang is bound to come up short. There are too many factors at play to ascribe blame to one cause. That fact makes this smart and detailed reporting by Jane Perlez in the New York Times all the more impressive. In this essay, Perlez walks through many of the competing and often contradictory reasons, some old, some new, for why China has been a less-than-willing participant in reining in North Korea.
Robert B. Zoellick/Wall Street Journal
“[S]peeding toward a shipwreck” is how President George W. Bush’s US trade representative and deputy secretary of state describes the Trump administration’s trade policy. And that’s just the first sentence. In this sharp op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Robert Zoellick makes the case that the president’s approach to the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, to NAFTA, and to trade in general amounts to both fuzzy math and a potential danger to US security interests. Zoellick’s proposed solution is to remove the president from the equation by having Congress step in and reassert its hand in trade policy.